Excerpt from the book "Karolina Remembers"
As told by Karolina Uchman Sadek to F. Gerry Szymanski Cierpilowski
From Mombasa, Kenya, to Masindi, Uganda, to Koia, Uganda, on Lake Victoria
The weary refugees arrived in Africa at the port of Mombasa, Kenya, with renewed hope. They were transported by buses to Masindi, Uganda, over sooty, winding, dirt roads. Because the vehicles were crowded, hot and odorous, windows had to be opened, resulting in a lot of coughing from the clouds of dust pouring in. It was also a nerve-racking ride. The passengers clutched their rosaries and prayed for the driver as he skillfully maneuvered the curves on this narrow and treacherous stretch, often hugging a mountain on one side while avoiding a precipice on the other. Later they learned that fatal accidents along this route were not uncommon.
At first Karolina and her mother were not particularly awed by the new scenery of this exotic continent, nor were their fellow travelers. After seeing so many different landscapes in so many lands in less than desirable circumstances, they were simply looking forward to settling in one place with sufficient food and roofs over their heads. In such a reliable haven, they could better start thinking of the future.
Arriving at their destination on the outskirts of Masindi, they felt great relief. The last transport of Poles found themselves in a huge complex within a British colony. This settlement itself, one among twenty-three in Africa, would sustain a total of 3,635 exiles (330 men, 1,546 women, 1,509 children, and 250 youth). 1 It was almost like a town, consisting of eight camps numbered in sequence according to the arrival of the transports. For the next four years Karolina and Aniela would call Camp No. 8 home. After furnishing basic, minimal information for registration they were shown to their dwellings.
It was explained that their Polish settlement and others like it were supported by UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration) and managed by the British. They would be provided with housing as well as daily food: meat, bread, vegetables and fruit. In addition, each person would be given an allowance of ten shillings a month for extras (e.g., salt, matches, and thread). They could also earn money at a variety of jobs waiting to be filled in this large community.
The houses were definitely African style, but with refinements. Although the walls and roofs were made of straw and the floor was grassy ground, they were constructed much better than the huts which the native people inhabited. The front door opened into a small, central room which was a kind of foyer with a larger room off each of the two sides, the living quarters. Each side had sufficient space, though cramped, for five to six people, with each person occupying his/her own single bed with a straw mattress and a mosquito net suspended on four posts. There was also a long table in the central room which was used in common. This whole arrangement was a huge improvement in the day-to-day lives of the refugees since leaving their own homes in Poland.
A little apart from the main structure, each house had two separate kitchens back to back. The entrance was at the side with one kitchen to the right and the other to the left, both covered by a common roof and surrounded by a half-wall. In each kitchen was a wood stove, but no sink nor shelves. Each camp had five or six water pumps from which the residents carried clean, drinkable water in pails. Food was kept in a cupboard in the foyer, and the table inside was used for food preparation and eating meals. The families cooperated by taking turns using the table and kitchens. They washed dishes in a large wooden bowl in the kitchen, discarding the water onto the ground outside their work area. The wood for fueling the stove was also kept in the kitchen area.
Garbage was discarded in ditches, two to three feet deep. However, no food was wasted and not much of anything thrown away. Nevertheless, there needed to be a system of disposal, and this one worked well. The dirt removed from the ditch was piled around it. Every time garbage was dumped, it was covered with some of the dirt. When the ditch was filled, the dirt used up, it was time to dig a new ditch.
Each house had its own privy with a straw roof and walls. Even though there was only one toilet, for ten to twelve people, basically a hole in the ground, it was private and far superior to what these wanderers had available to them in the previous three years. The sanitation was adequate and the construction allowed a person to sit. For many, such as the farmers, it was as good as what they had back home.
Karolina and Aniela learned that the initial camp for the first transport of Polish refugees had been built by the native Africans under British supervision; the second constructed by the residents of the first, and the rest likewise put together by the previous arrivals. The Africans did a lot of the harder work such as digging ditches and putting in the pumps. Karolina considered them slaves of the British because they did strenuous labor for the English colony and received a meager ten shillings per month.
In the beginning Karolina and Aniela shared their side of the house with a mother and daughter as well as another woman and her son, while a mother with four children lived in the opposite section, for a total of eleven in the house. Although it was somewhat confined, the residents did not find their housing oppressively hot. Each large room had a shuttered, glassless window which they agreed to keep open during the day for ventilation. They closed the door and shutters only at night to keep the critters out, so there was enough daytime breeze for comfort and the nights were equally tolerable, even pleasant.
Karolina and Aniela arrived in Africa just in time for the planting season when workers were needed. Consequently Karolina’s first job was planting peanuts and vegetables, and then caring for these crops by weeding and watering. Tropical heat dictated the work hours: 6:00 or 7:00 A.M. to 10:00 A.M., and 4:00 P.M. until 6:00 P.M. Karolina was happy for the break in the afternoon because of her history of fainting in the fields back home when it became too warm. The watering was done after supper in the relative cool of the evening. She found the days full and satisfying.
After a while Karolina noticed that her legs, injured and discolored by frostbite, were gradually healing. The warm African sun was soothing to the fragile flesh and skin of her calves and ankles. As the purplish hue and white streaks faded, her tissues thickened so that her ankle bones were no longer visible; less shapely legs were not a high price to pay for less pain. Even so, Karolina's lower limbs would always remain tender to the touch and prone to edema.
Eventually Karolina was offered and gladly accepted a job in her camp’s warehouse for the disbursement of food. For this more responsible position she received seventy shillings per month, an increase in salary. She was impressed with the efficiency and strict fairness of the operation. There were four employees: a female manager, a male butcher, and two young women who grouped and passed out the food. Karolina was one of the latter.
She had particular respect for the manager who worked diligently with paper and pencil, mathematically dividing up the food among the people in the camp. The woman had an accurate list of houses which included the names and number of families in each residence and the number of persons in each family. She carefully kept records of the disbursement of food. The meat, occasionally hams, but usually half a cow, was delivered daily in early morning, butchered and distributed by 10:00 A.M. The butcher cut the meat in various sizes to suit the number of people in the families. Fridays brought fresh, cleaned catfish with the heads still attached. Portions for one, two, three, four, five or six member families were grouped on four long tables. When all was ready, a loud bell was rung, and someone from each family came with a container for the pickup since no paper was available for wrapping. The manager sat at the door marking her ledger as the names were called out and the food taken. The challenge for the two women employees was to remember what kind of cut of meat a family received the day before in order to be fair in the distribution. They didn’t want people complaining of always getting the bone or gristle.
After the disbursement of meat or fish was completed, the women scrubbed the tables clean to get ready for the produce which arrived mid to late morning. Vegetables and fruit were portioned out on the tables, again, according to family size. There was a variety of fruit with a different one making an appearance each weekday. Karolina can still picture the large bunches of bananas that came on Wednesdays and the delicious oranges that were delivered on Thursdays. Bread came daily, but butter only weekly. Dried kidney beans and powdered milk were available as staples. The crew was kept busy until 3:00 or 4:00 P.M., six days a week. On Saturdays, the families received a double portion so that Sundays were days off for the workers.
Karolina and her mother added to their diets by growing sweet potatoes. In this part of Africa, there are two planting seasons per year, and there was no shortage of fertile ground. Farmers at heart, mother and daughter made good use of this opportunity and enjoyed it. The first year they also planted papaya trees which grew quickly and began yielding fruit about the third year. In addition, they grew cotton with the seeds they had saved from Uzbekistan. With their harvest they were able to make several small pillows for themselves. Their practical, proactive and energetic natures served them well. Aniela also kept busy and earned a little extra money by taking care of a baby girl named Jadzia (Yah’jah) whose mother was a teacher and occupied a good part of the day. The antics of the child amused the household and provided a welcome diversion. Occasionally, when she was free, Karolina looked after the little one to give Aniela a break or allow her to do some other tasks.
While the weather of this jungle region posed no real problems, other conditions were more of a challenge. The houses had no ceilings, only rafters, so at any given moment, day or night, the residents might look up and see a snake, a rat or mice crawling across or resting on the timbers. As if that weren’t disconcerting enough, the occupants continuously waged battle with large termites, red ants, bedbugs and black fleas. These omnipresent, persistent insects had been here first and they were not about to retreat.
The termites came out of the ground inside the homes. Overnight there would be piles of dirt and evidence that these insects had eaten their fill. They were indiscriminate, munching on wood, shoes, food, etc. Karolina had constructed a little shelf out of sticks which she fixed high up on a wall and out of the way for her thick-leather suitcase. One night the termites found their way to this sturdy baggage and chewed a ridge through it, almost getting in. Besides squashing any they could find, the residents fought back by digging deep into the ground to find and kill the queen. Karolina and her friends were fascinated by the intricate design of the underground termite network, nicknaming it the “queen’s palace.” Finally, after a couple years, the termites did back off somewhat.
The red ants were equally incessant. Traveling in long, purposeful lines, their favorite destinations were the food cupboards in the foyers. The solution required placing the feet of the cupboards in cans of liquid tar which would trap and drown the ants. Again, after two to three years the problem abated.
The bedbugs were a far more serious problem which persisted to the end of their stay. Every six weeks or so the beds had to be taken outside where the straw was removed from the casing. The bedding and casing were boiled in pots, and boiling water was poured over the roping supports, wood posts, and wooden joints where eggs might be nesting. After they dried, the casings were filled with fresh straw. This process would take care of the problem for at least a month, and then signs of new infestation began to appear. Later, sprays for bedbugs from the U.S. were distributed, and specialists were sent to lend assistance.
Of all the insect problems, the most revolting were the tiny, barely visible, black fleas that got under toe nails where they made nests. “You knew you were infected when one of your toes would start itching like crazy,” says Karolina. The only cure was to dig them out which was very painful. Before long the hospital started sending trained personnel from door to door who expertly removed the insects within their enclosed nest capsules. This was no less painful and left a hole in the toe, but at least it was done properly and the opening eventually healed. The Poles now understood why some of the natives were minus a few toes. When asked how many of her toes had been infected, Karolina replied, “All of them!”
To ensure that the camp residents maintained good hygiene habits, a female doctor commissioned by the hospital inspected the homes once every two weeks. The strict, no-nonsense woman, tall and slender with an authoritative demeanor, demanded cleanliness and would find dust in the oddest places. While the Poles disliked her manner and inordinate fastidiousness, they understood that a dirt-free environment was crucial to good health.
Eventually the builders among the refugees began improving the houses and teaching the residents to do the same for themselves. On the inside they trimmed some of the bundled straw to even it out, and they spread wet clay over the walls, working it into the straw. The result looked somewhat like plaster, but more importantly, it was protection from the insects that lived in the straw, and it provided more insulation against the heat. They did the same with the dirt floors, pounding damp clay into the ground and smoothing it to give the appearance of a finished floor, though that did not prevent the termites from boring their way through. Of course, the rodents, chameleons, and snakes, able to enter through the roof, continued to pester the occupants from the rafters.
The most important improvement in housing was the building of more homes, effectively reducing the crowding. The new construction followed the original plans, except that the walls were made of halamuce, bricks consisting of straw and clay, about the size of cement blocks. The straw, softer than normal and unsuitable for other purposes, was cut into approximately ten-inch lengths before being mixed with the clay. The workers would then hand mold a hunk of the mixture, eyeballing the size. The building began before these large bricks were completely dry; one row was stacked on top of the other. The still moist halamuce were soft enough to join together and to be smoothed out on the inside. When the building of these dwellings was completed there were enough to allow single families to occupy single rooms. The refugees were now living only four to a room instead of five or six. Finally a bit of privacy! Besides providing more personal space, Karolina confirms that these homes were definitely cooler.
As they had in their own country the Poles took pride in their new, though temporary, homes which was evidenced by the flowers and greenery planted in their yards. Soon the hut-like structures were surrounded with the hedges of a flowering shrub which they called Japanese Rose and which grew quickly in Uganda’s climate. Other African flora were also domesticated to beautify their setting. After all, no one knew how long this would be home, so they made it look as lovely as possible. Their appreciation and enjoyment of flowers, integral to the Polish culture, gave this war-induced “diaspora” much comfort.
In general, the Poles who spent several years in Africa have mostly good memories of this sojourn. The camps housed individuals from all walks of life: farmers, builders, carpenters, seamstresses, shoemakers, teachers, doctors, nurses, morticians, and even a priest. Since the people realized they were now settled here until after the war, they soon began using their respective trades, establishing small businesses. Before long one could have clothing or shoes made, or get something repaired; the tradesmen could earn extra money; and, the community began to have a semblance of normality.
The medical professionals at first looked after the sick in a makeshift hospital of three or four regular, straw houses; however, before long, builders and doctors planned a real hospital in the middle of their settlement. There was no shortage of willing manual labor to accomplish this project, but of course, without full British support, it could not have been done. Due to the generosity of various charitable organizations this new hospital was equipped, medicines were donated and the refugees had access to proper medical treatment. Subsequently, courses were provided for the training of nurse’s aides. Karolina was invited to take part, but she declined thinking she didn’t have “the stomach” for hospital work. At least for now, she was satisfied with the job she had at the food disbursement center.
Schools were also needed, and they too were built. The structures were similar to the houses, but longer and not partitioned inside. The children, dressed in uniforms furnished by the English, sat at long tables for their lessons. Paper, pencils, books and other needed teaching tools were again supplied by the charities. The children were eager to be taught, to study, to learn, to live a more normal life. Polish teachers were very solicitous and understanding of their students because they had shared the same or similar horrendous experiences.
Orphanages were quickly established for the many children whose parents died in one way or another at the hands of the Soviets. Here the children were cared for and nurtured by willing and loving Polish “mothers”. It was in one of these homes that Karolina found her cousin Andzia (On’jah), the youngest daughter of Aniela’s sister, Maria Kulka, who had died along with her husband in Tehran.
Karolina began visiting Andzia and seriously considered having the young teen join Aniela and herself. She felt a sense of obligation to her first cousin who through no fault of her own was without family. However, the director of the orphanage counseled Karolina against it. Taking on a developmentally slow child when one was not certain about one’s own future was not exactly wise. There would be problems that Karolina was not expecting and could not foresee, and Aniela was not in favor of it either. As much as she would like to help her sister’s child, her own unstable health and the fact that they themselves did not know where they would end up precluded their assuming the responsibility for another person. It would be totally different if Andzia did not have good care, but she did. Karolina acquiesced. As for the girl, she was happily reunited with her older sister Marysia in Poland after the war.
Because the refugees were all registered in their camps, it was possible for families to find each other, even when they were in other parts of Africa. Consequently, Wera who with her daughters was situated in Rhodesia, eventually was able to make contact with her mother and sister enabling the two families to correspond regularly. Karolina and Aniela were relieved to hear that Wera, Maryla and Irenka were now healthy and doing well, and that the girls were finally back in school making up for lost time. Maryla even got involved in a dance group as well as other extracurricular activities.
Irenka gradually recovered from the trauma of her earlier years. She remembers the African years as happy times. The weather was warm, her family was neither ill nor hungry, and they were surrounded by kind, helpful people speaking her native language. Irenka finally felt safe.
Antoni wrote letters and sent postcards as well as parcels from various locations as he traveled in General Anders’ army which Wera and the girls cherished. Their lives had settled down into a healthy routine and the family was full of hope for the future. To supplement the family income Wera embroidered tablecloths, coverlets for eiderdown comforters, table scarves, etc. for the English colonists who lived and were employed here. She also worked a couple of hours in the evenings at the camp canteen. Every little bit helped.
The war continued to rage as the Polish exiles set up temporary lives in safe havens for the duration. Worried about their young men gone for soldiers and hopeful for a successful outcome, they yearned for good news. Unfortunately, the summer of 1943 brought bad news. Their beloved premier, General Wladyslaw Sikorski, also commander-in-chief of the Polish Army, was killed on July 4, 1943, in a plane crash as he left Gibraltar. He had been trying to mend fences with the USSR after the rift over the Katyn massacre. The Poles, who had placed great hope in him, were crushed. Suspicions about his “accident” abounded. As always, in times of trouble and grief, they came together to pray. However bad things got, they would not lose their faith in God.
Since Roman Catholicism had been the heart and soul of Poland for centuries, it was natural that the Polish refugees would want to build a church as soon as possible. They had gone so very long without the benefit of liturgy and the sacraments, but now, at Masindi, they finally had a priest in their midst. Initially they constructed a canopy to protect him from sun and rain while he said mass. However plans for a building were soon drawn up by the builders and contractors, and these were not drafts for an ordinary structure. This house of God was going to be an attractive, brick edifice.
One of the many volunteers for building the church, Karolina found herself involved in making the bricks. Red clay had been discovered, excavated and brought from a nearby hill. The men dug a large hole into which they dumped clay and water. Karolina and others blended the clay and water with their feet. They also chopped straw which was added to the mixture for strength and durability. Forms were made out of wood into which the thick mixture was poured. The smaller bricks baked in a makeshift oven, while the larger bricks dried slowly in the sun. Karolina distinctly and proudly remembers their unique red color.
The yearning of the Polish refugees for a place of worship was fulfilled. Their church was completed in due course and named The Seven Wounds of Christ, a wounded people identifying with their wounded Savior. Seven crosses, one for each wound, adorned the top of the building. The day the church was dedicated was a joyous one. There were flowers everywhere, and the parishioners came in their finest apparel. Besides the celebration of the mass, there was a procession around the church ending with the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. A newly formed choir led the congregation in joyous song. Soon baptisms, first communions, weddings, and funerals as well as Easter, Christmas, and the seasonal holy days were properly celebrated in this beautiful edifice. There was much, well-earned, community pride.
On the hill, not far from the church, lay the Polish cemetery. As the years passed it increased in size. Many Poles had been physically weakened by their three-year ordeal in the Soviet Union and the long, laborious trek southward. In this condition, some could not withstand the ravages of malaria or other tropical maladies; others died of natural causes or accidents. As was their custom, the Poles commemorated their dead on All Saints’ Day when they decorated the graves with flowers and candles and had masses said for the repose of their souls. On that evening each year the cemetery was a beautiful sight to behold. The hillside could be seen from afar, the candles glowing brightly long into the night.
Karolina recalls attending only one funeral. A person quarantined in the old makeshift hospital had been struck by lightning in bed during a thunderstorm. She was impressed by the totally white coffin which the pall bearers carried slowly and with difficulty. At one point they were standing still holding the coffin while the priest was praying over it. Karolina noticed that red ants were crawling up the pant leg of one of the pallbearers, and marveled that he could be so stoic and still throughout the prayers while these aggressive ants were biting him.
Although funerals were sad, Karolina would have liked to have attended a prayerful, final goodbye for her dear friend Jania (Yon’ya). The young woman had no family nearby since her brother was in the military and her parents had not survived the deportation. She and Karolina had frequently passed the evenings with leisurely walks and conversation, occasionally joining others. At some point Karolina noticed that her friend was losing weight, but Jania did not complain of being sick. When her illness became obvious, she was hospitalized in the settlement and then moved to the larger hospital in Masindi. Her friends expected her to recover and return, but instead they eventually got word of Jania’s passing without any details about the cause of her untimely death or her funeral. Although death was still a familiar fact of life at that time and accepted much more readily than it is today, those who knew and loved Jania were grief-stricken.
When they first arrived, the refugees had few belongings and simply had to make do. Eventually, American charities began supplementing the support from UNRRA in the form of pots and pans, hygiene items, pillows, sprays for bedbugs, material, clothes, etc. There was not always enough to go around. Later, enormous bundles wrapped with heavy material started to arrive from the United States through the Red Cross. Resembling bales of hay, these balje (bahl-yeh) were filled with all kinds of used clothing including beautiful dresses They were distributed by a designated person who would sit in the midst of a crowd, examine the size and type of each item, and toss it to a more or less suitable taker. Often an item caught did not fit after all. No problem! It was later simply passed along until it looked just right on someone. Karolina acquired two lovely dresses in just this way. Of course, one couldn’t be shy and it helped to know someone in charge of the various distributions. You could say in advance, “Don’t forget! I need such and such. In case it comes in, let me know.”
During one such dispersal an orphaned girl, Ania, probably no more than ten to twelve years old, was handed a shabby jacket which she accepted. Later, upon examining it more closely Ania noticed a patch sewn into the lining. Carefully unstitching it she was elated to discover a ten-dollar bill along with a short letter from the donors. A Polish-American couple in Chicago was asking the recipient to write to them. Thus began a loving relationship which ended with Ania’s adoption into their welcoming family at war’s end. In the meantime she became the best-dressed child at the orphanage.
Karolina and Aniela settled into a comfortable routine which included some free time. In Poland, they had both enjoyed needlework, such as cross stitch and embroidery, and they hoped to resume it here. Their appreciation of beauty and need to create it had not been squelched, re-emerging stronger than ever. Aniela had always kept needle and thread with her, enabling her to repair and extend the life of their clothing wherever they were. Now they wanted multicolored, special thread for their crafts.
There was a town within walking distance, but nevertheless quite far, which the Poles visited whenever they needed specialty items that could not be found in their own settlement. In the small stores which were owned mostly by Chinese merchants, Karolina purchased her fancy thread and material. She also discovered an outdoor, open market abundant with miscellaneous wares as well as foodstuffs such as salt, sugar, eggs and a variety of fruit. She hoped to find coffee, tea and cheese but was disappointed as none of these was available. As the need arose Karolina made the trek to this town, usually after church on Sundays.
After one such shopping afternoon, she was returning with her parcels on the usual path through the jungle when she was suddenly grabbed from behind by an African native. Since he hadn’t simply snatched her packages, Karolina realized that he wanted her. She also knew that there was a designated police post not too far away in the clearing, so she began screaming, “Policja, Policja, Policja” at the top of her lungs, simultaneously fighting off her attacker. It worked! The man abruptly let her go and dashed into the trees. Karolina ran too — as fast as she could — to the outdoor station! This post, or checkpoint, was situated downhill near a spring just out of the woods. It was a nice cool spot at the edge of an open field in a valley. Here a Black English policeman with a red hat and black tassel usually sat with a Polish guard. However, on this day and at this time, for an unknown reason, no one was on duty! So Karolina hurried on, knowing full well how lucky she had been. Completely shaken and with wobbly legs she made it back. Finding no one at home, she threw herself on her bed and didn’t tell anyone until morning. As Karolina fell into a fitful sleep she found herself whispering prayers of humble, heartfelt thanksgiving.
Generally speaking, the Poles were not fearful of their native African neighbors, but rather interested in their unique culture. Sudden drumming in the distance and black, semi-naked natives running barefoot through the settlement sparked their curiosity. From the start, the refugees had seen the natives working for the British, usually engaged in the most difficult labor. However, their private lives were alien. Soon the Poles learned that these dark skinned people were mostly friendly.
The Africans lived nearby in villages of their own. Their huts, close together, were constructed totally of straw and appeared as if they were inverted cups with the roofs sloping into walls. Karolina and her friends would wander over to the village when they heard singing and drumming. Standing on the periphery, they observed the men, painted in bright colors with bells on their ankles, taking part in tribal dances while all the villagers voiced the strange-sounding chants and songs. The performers would show off even more when they noticed their rapt, foreign audience.
Some of the Poles peeked into the huts and saw large circular rooms with belongings mostly on the ground. The women cooked outside with pots and pans which they probably had received from the British, but these were poor people whose meals consisted mostly of sweet potatoes and bananas. Dried termites supplemented their diet. With hands outstretched, the children would often come begging to the Polish settlement and were readily given bread, as well as other food. It wasn’t very long ago that the givers had been beggars themselves.
At first, the natives wore little clothing, the young ones commonly naked and the women without tops. However, as world charities poured more and more clothing into the camps, these items were shared, and before long, the blacks were sporting more garments. The Poles would have to keep an eye on their laundry as it hung out to dry, because it could be easily pilfered. Karolina lost a pretty yellow blouse that way.
The Poles, especially the younger folks, also became fascinated with Africa’s flora and fauna. On Sundays a group of young women would sometimes hike into the jungle or up the mountain and find themselves surrounded by chimpanzees, monkeys and many colorful, exotic birds with unusual songs. Caught up in the moment, they would try swinging on the rope-like vines from tree to tree, imitating the chimpanzees and not at all aware of the Tarzan movies, popular halfway around the globe. For a little while, at least, their youthful spirits emerged and they had some real fun, giggling and laughing and forgetting their recent past, as well as their uncertain future. Many years later in the United States, Karolina did become acquainted with character of Tarzan in the movie theaters and fondly recalled those precious moments.
In the evenings, the men usually gathered at the camp’s administrative office, listening to the news on the radio and endlessly discussing it. Karolina and her friends, Janka (Yon’-ka) and Irka, took long walks along the roads of the settlement. They chatted about the latest happenings or the letters that began arriving from relatives in England, Poland or other African settlements. As they analyzed the pros and cons of prospective options, their conversations overflowed with a new hope for the future. When people finally relaxed, humor found its way into the routine of daily life indicating their improved mental and emotional well-being. One evening, at dusk, Janka and Irka’s parents were taking a walk on one of the roads. The father asked his wife which direction she preferred to go. Weary from the day she replied that she didn’t care and said, “Do whatever you want!” Some children playing nearby overheard the conversation, told others, and, for some reason, it struck a funny note. From that time onward, that road was known as Do-Whatever-you-Want!
In the camp there were seven young wives whose soldier husbands were stationed in England shortly after the war. These young women hung around together pining away after their men. Together they composed a letter called Seven Hot African Wives Seeking Their Husbands in England. It is unlikely that it was actually sent, but the story got around causing more than a little good-natured chuckling.
About halfway through their sojourn in Africa both Karolina and her mother contracted malaria. This widespread, infectious disease, caused by parasites and spread by mosquitoes, continuously plagued the Polish settlement as it did the natives and the British. The symptoms are flu-like including bouts of chills and fever, headache, muscle aches, tiredness and sometimes nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Malaria can often become chronic, and if not treated promptly, it can be fatal.
Aniela became ill first and was hospitalized. After she recovered Karolina came down with a high fever, but she lay at home a few days until a nurse checked her and sent her to the hospital too. At that time, malaria was treated with quinine as it had been for a few hundred years. However, the hospital had run out of injections so they gave Karolina the liquid form which tasted very bitter and would not stay down. The vomiting made her so weak that she could not rise from her bed. Fortunately, the quinine injections did arrive after a few days and Karolina recovered rapidly. Even though she suffered from chills and night sweats off and on afterwards, she never again had an acute attack. However, Aniela did have several more serious episodes requiring hospitalization. Though she found relief for weeks, months or even years at a time, she sporadically experienced the recurring symptoms of malaria for the rest of her life.
Young women had another alternative to remaining in the refugee camps for the course of the war. They were being recruited by the Pestki, the female contingent of the Polish Army. Once enlisted, they were given some training right in the settlement, but only the very basics were taught with a focus on physical fitness. Practice marches of the newly initiated Pestki were a common sight in and around the camps. The great attraction to military service, besides having the opportunity to help the Allies, was the privilege of residence in England following the war. Karolina says she would have joined in an instant if she didn’t have her mother to look after. Aniela who was now in her mid-sixties continued to be sickly and could not have made it on her own. However, Karolina did not consider her mother a burden and did not feel sorry for herself. When asked about the general attitude of the refugees in Africa, Karolina replied, “We left the past behind us. We were grateful for the present. We quietly went about the work and routine of our daily lives. Most important, we were finally able to look to the future. We were trying to figure out where to go and what to do with the rest of our lives.”
The refugees especially started thinking about “...where to go and what to do...” when the war ended in 1945 and after Poland’s new status had become clear. The dream of returning to their own cherished country turned into an implausible fantasy as they learned of the agreements made by the leaders of the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and the United States. Postwar Poland had lost a significant portion of its territory since its eastern border had been moved some two to three hundred kilometers to the west, placing former Polish land in the Soviet Union. Those who had inhabited these regions did not want to go back only to end up living in the cruel nation they had so narrowly escaped. Furthermore, what remained of Poland was in shambles, destroyed by the war. The country was no longer independent, but now under the control of Stalin who could never be trusted. Karolina and Aniela wondered what, if anything, they would have left of their former homestead. The decision regarding “...where to go and what to do...” was a difficult one with limited known options.
The camps did not immediately disperse because the world in general needed time to settle and mend. Fortunately, many would be joining their soldier relatives in England where the Polish military was welcome, but England had to prepare for the influx of these victims of war. Temporary camps were being established in the United Kingdom, and in fact, that generous nation remained on food rationing long after the U.S. and other countries returned to normal because they had opened their portals so wide.
The first to leave the African settlements were those headed for Great Britain. Others would be going to Australia or Argentina, and still others chose to return to Poland despite the hardships they expected. Everything took time. Letters were being sent back and forth to arrange for housing, transportation, and sometimes, jobs. At least two years passed before the camps in the Masindi settlement were finally closed. The remaining refugees were sent to the Polish settlement in Koia (Koh’ya), Uganda, about six or seven hours westward by truck. Karolina and Aniela were among those people. Fortunately, Karolina had a good friend, Hasia Wiecek (Hah’sha Vyen’ tsek), in the Koia camp.
The Uchman and Wiecek families had a long history as friends — first in Wola Dalsza and then in Dybawka where the Wieceks bought a small piece of land from Feliks Uchman for 1,000 zloty (approximately $188.00 U.S. dollars at that time). They were good neighbors for years. Karolina and Hasia were close friends, though Hasia was about three years older. Like Feliks, the father of the Wiecek family passed away a few years before the 1940 deportation, but Hasia, her mother and older brother, Julio (Yu’lyoh), were not spared from the exile. The three survived the ordeal, Hasia and her mother finding themselves in Koia and Julio in the Polish army. Karolina and Hasia reconnected through the Red Cross and corresponded regularly. Both, now caretakers of their ailing mothers, had much in common. However, Hasia’s mother, older and sicklier than Aniela, died before the Masindi camp completely shut down. Hasia, knowing that her friends would soon be coming to Koia, quickly got permission for them to move in with her upon their transfer. This worked out well for all concerned.
The Uchmans were taken to Koia by the usual means of transportation, an open truck rumbling over very dry, dirt roads. When they arrived at the Koia camp the women were so dust-covered that Hasia barely recognized her friends, but after the initial shock of their appearance, she enthusiastically welcomed them. This was an especially happy time for the girls who had not seen each other since a chance meeting in Tehran, and before that, in Poland. They spent days catching up on the past and discussing their prospective futures. Hasia had hopes of joining her brother Julio in England. On the other side of the house were two other girls who lived with their father, Mr. Tuczynski, their mother having died in Siberia. With four young people, it made for a cheerful household. Karolina and Aniela would stay here for about a year.
Life in this camp was a little more exotic because the village of Koia was situated on Lake Victoria, Africa’s largest lake. As they lived only about thirty yards from the shore, it was commonplace for them to see a rhinoceros, hippopotamus, crocodile, or families of such animals. Karolina especially enjoyed watching baby crocodiles struggle up the rocks and sun themselves. She also marveled at how hard it was to see the adults in the water. Recalling these fascinating creatures in her mind’s eye, Karolina recounts with awe: “They didn’t even blink their eyes!” Needless to say, swimming in the lake was strictly forbidden.
One afternoon, not long after Karolina and Aniela had arrived, a hardworking sixteen-year-old Polish boy was attacked by a crocodile when he entered the lake just a few yards to wash his hands before lunch. His younger brother and sister heard his screams and saw him taken, but it was too late! The actual date would be remembered because it was November 20, 1947, the wedding day of the future Queen Elizabeth of England. Ever after the residents of the Koia settlement would connect this terrible tragedy to that joyous event being broadcast on the camp radio.
During the war, normal mail from across the ocean had come to a halt. My mother, Helen Nedza Szymanski and her brother Roman Nedza, both in the United States, heard nothing from their family in Poland. Only three-years-old, I remember the first overseas letter that arrived after the war ended, probably in the early months of 1946. My mother, having eagerly opened the strange-looking envelope, was reading in Polish and crying. Many tragic things had happened, but her immediate, personal grief was caused by the news of her own father’s natural death. As more letters were exchanged, my grandmother and aunts wrote about the deportation of the Uchman family. No one in Poland knew their fate! My parents took it upon themselves to make inquiries through the Red Cross which was helping to reunite families. When Karolina and Aniela were located in Africa, still in Masindi, my mother wrote to them inviting them to the United States.
Karolina could hardly believe her eyes as she read the letter. It was an answered prayer followed by an instant decision. That’s where they would go! After all, she was a U.S. citizen and had a right to America, and now there was someone to help them. Aniela cautioned her daughter that it would not be easy in America. You had to work hard in that land-of-plenty too. But the young woman, who by this time was accustomed to hardship, could not be swayed. “Mom, I can and will do any work,” was her confident reply. She immediately went to the main office of the Polish settlement to determine what needed to be done to get to the United States.
In due course, my parents received a letter from Karolina and Aniela accepting their invitation. Included was an explanation of what was needed. My father, John, filled out the proper forms and wrote an official letter of invitation. My parents also procured and mailed Karolina a copy of her birth certificate, as well as an affidavit promising financial support in the U.S. and proof that they were capable of it. They sent $1200, since estimated travel expenses were $600 for each. This was required up front when the Uchmans went to the American consulate to apply for passports. Never wanting to take advantage of anyone, Karolina promised to pay back the money as soon as she could earn it. “Helen, don’t worry,” she wrote. “I will do any work, whatever kind it is, as long as I am healthy.” The process had begun.
At about the same time, the postal networks were beginning to reopen everywhere, and Karolina finally was able to contact a family member in Poland. She informed her brother Stefan of their intentions to go to America. Soon, however, the local authorities warned her of obstacles ahead for Aniela who was not an American citizen. Karolina had just assumed her mother would be allowed to enter the States with her, but it was not to be as easy as that.
In the meantime, people in Poland with American birth certificates were being urged to emigrate to the United States because the war-ravaged country was in dire straits and unable to care for all its citizens. Stefan, by now the father of two daughters and anxious to improve the life of his family, immediately decided to take the risk, and in a matter of only two months found himself in Detroit, Michigan. Welcomed by his cousin Roman, his wife Celia and their two children, Lorraine and Hank, he was given temporary lodging, sharing an attic bedroom with eight-year-old Hank. The man and the boy bonded quickly. Stefan, who had learned English in the Ralphton schools, easily relearned the language from Hank, and gave the youngster the opportunity to practice Polish. The two would remain lifelong friends.
Upon learning of her brother’s good fortune, Karolina informed him of Aniela’s pressing problem. Stefan discovered that as a resident of the United States, he could have his mother come directly to him as long as he took full responsibility for her. With the help of his cousins, he filled out and sent the appropriate applications to Africa. The problem was solved!
Next, the camp made arrangements and provided the transportation for Karolina and Aniela to travel the considerable distance to the American consulate in Nairobi, Kenya. They were taken by truck to the railroad station and then by train right into the heart of Nairobi where they were met by an employee of the American Embassy. With documents and money in hand, Karolina nervously applied for visas and passports. Was this really happening? As usual, she tempered her excitement and whispered a prayer. All that was left was the waiting. And wait she did!
Aniela received her visa and passport expeditiously in the mail, but Karolina’s was inexplicably delayed. Since Aniela’s visa was good for only three months, both had to return to Nairobi to extend it. After two months into the extension, a decision was necessary. The visa could not be extended again. Should Aniela leave without Karolina? Or should they both leave the settlement — Aniela for departure, and Karolina to stay in Kenya in order to make inquiries and badger the authorities for her papers? The camp managers encouraged the latter course, and they agreed.
Karolina and her mother were transported to a transitory camp in Mombasa, the port in Kenya on the Indian Ocean where they had arrived and where refugees now awaited departure. Once again and for the last time they slept in tents on the sand by the sea. Since Aniela’s visa was near expiration, she was soon placed on a ship. The separation was heart-rending for both of them, even though neither would shed a tear for the sake of the other. Mother and daughter had been together for nearly nine years through untold hardships. Karolina could not accompany Aniela all the way to the ship for practical reasons, but had to say goodbye at the bus stop in the camp. Suddenly feeling all alone and worried about her mother’s journey, Karolina wept as she slowly walked the long distance back to her tent. Adding insult to injury, she was jeered by some insensitive Polish boys who had watched the leave-taking. “What are you going to do without your momma?” they called out.
While Karolina pestered the Mombasa office for her own visa and passport, Aniela’s ship was carrying her northwest along the African coast, then east through the Gulf of Aden, and northeast on the Red Sea. However, when the authorities realized that her visa was about to expire, they had her disembark in Egypt near Cairo. An urgent call was placed to my parents in Detroit, Michigan, requesting an extra $300 to put Aniela on a plane in order to meet the visa deadline. The money was immediately wired by Stefan, and she arrived sooner than expected, in mid to late autumn of 1948. Karolina, of course, knew nothing of her mother’s adventures.
After waiting several more weeks at the Mombasa camp, Karolina finally got her papers! It was December 8th, 1948, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, as Karolina boarded an English cargo ship with a small Polish family. She was immensely relieved, happy and incredulous that after two years since receiving the first letter from her cousin Helen, she was finally on her way to the land of her birth, her new home!
Copies of this book (Karolina Remembers) can be purchased via the internet from www.Lulu.com